Living Bird Magazine
Pacific LoonGavia pacifica
- ORDER: Gaviiformes
- FAMILY: Gaviidae
Breeding Pacific Loons are dapper birds with soft gray heads and intricate black-and-white patterning on the back and neck. They nest on tundra lakes, where their far-carrying wails lend a haunting sound to the Arctic landscape. This is the most abundant of North America’s five loon species, and in winter they gather in large numbers in coastal waters, bays, and estuaries. Spring migration can produce one of the continent’s great wildlife spectacles, in which thousands of Pacific Loons, along with Red-throated and Common Loons, pass by for hours.More ID Info
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Pacific Loons are relatively easy to find on their namesake ocean from late fall (October) through spring (May). Far fewer are present in the height of summer. They forage near the coast and also into large bays, occasionally along larger rivers and lakes near the coast. During spring migration, scan from a headland with binoculars or a spotting scope to spot large, loose flocks (often of several loon species) moving northward. In winter, migrants sometimes turn up far from the coast in the Rocky Mountains, Great Plains, and even the Atlantic coast.
- Colimbo del Pacífico (Spanish)
- Plongeon du Pacifique (French)
- Cool Facts
- Although Pacific and Red-throated Loons are similar in size, the Pacific is about a third heavier. This helps Pacific Loons dive more efficiently (they are less buoyant), and enables them to catch fish at greater depths. However, the trade-off for being heavier is apparent when the two species take to the air! Pacific Loons need 30–50 yards of open water to run in order to take flight, whereas Red-throated Loons can spring into the air with little or no pattering. This permits Red-throated Loons to use much smaller nesting lakes than Pacific Loons, and it also gives them greater aerial maneuverability. Red-throated Loons are so agile in the air that they can hunt fish by sight, quickly turning and gliding down to the ocean when they spot prey.
- The larger loons, Yellow-billed and Common, differ from the smaller Pacific and Arctic in the way they dive: the larger birds put the head in the water and tip forward, whereas the smaller species extend their necks and make a slight leap when diving.
- Pacific Loons are fast fliers and can fly at 37 miles per hour.
- Like other loons, Pacific Loons have their feet positioned far back on their bodies. This makes them strong swimmers, but they can only barely walk on land and cannot take flight from land at all. They must flap and patter across 30–50 yards of open water to take flight.
- Pacific Loons are very territorial when breeding. In Alaska, scientists have even seen them perform threat displays at passing airplanes!
- Pacific and Arctic Loons are extremely similar and were formerly considered the same species. Where the two species meet in western Alaska and eastern Siberia, the Arctic Loon has a greenish patch on its throat. Arctic Loons from the rest of Eurasia have purplish throats, similar to those of Pacific Loons.
- Pacific and Arctic Loons in the waters off Japan in late winter work together, swimming under and around schools of sandlance (a small fish) and concentrating them into a tight ball. Japanese fishermen used to exploit this habit by fishing for sea bream that gather to feed on the sandlance. With such assistance from the loons, the fishermen sometimes earned a year's livelihood in February and March alone. As a result, the loons were worshipped as messengers from heaven. Now, this practice has ceased because of unexplained declines in loon populations, collapse of sea bream populations, and adoption of other fishing methods.